2021 will go down as the worst year for drug overdose deaths in British Columbia.
The BC Coroners Service reported 201 fatalities in October, which is a record number – 13 of those occurred in Northern Health.
In addition, 70.6% of those who died in that month were between the ages of 30-59.
In an interview with Vista Radio, Chief Coroner, Lisa Lapointe stated it’s up to all levels of government to expand safe supply, but there has been some reluctance.
“This is a new approach. An approach that in normal times we may not consider but we are in a public health emergency. We are in the sixth year and we have seen more than 85-hundred deaths in five and a half years, which is just astonishing.”
“It is terribly, terribly sad. These are human beings we are talking about – these are lives and people with families. As you know, from communities all over the province, including the north, which has lost so many of its members and it’s brought along so much suffering. Safe supply is a way of ensuring that people who are substance-dependent can have access to supply that is regulated and safe.”
New data released by the Coroners Service shows drug toxicity is the leading cause of death among those between the ages of 19 and 39.
Furthermore, the average age of death in BC when it comes to illicit drugs is 43 years old.
“People are potentially buying one thing and they are ending up with two or three things in the substance they are taking or they are ending up with a much stronger or extreme level of fentanyl.”
“The black market is entirely unpredictable and volatile. We are more and more now seeing different substances turning up in post-mortem toxicology testing. We are often seeing methamphetamines or benzodiazepines,” said Lapointe.
From April of 2020 to October of 2021, about 14% of cases had extreme fentanyl concentrations compared to just 8% from January of 2019 to March of 2020.
Among the drug types involved in completed illicit drug toxicology death investigations, illicit fentanyl spiked from 5% in 2012 to a whopping 85% last year.
“I think we realize we cannot see these death rates continue and we are really looking for a meaningful intervention,” added Lapointe.
The Chief Coroner believes the record-setting amount of drug deaths is a failure of drug policy as well as a lack of supports.
“It’s just been a huge gap and we are now seeing that in all of these people dying and very little services. There are efforts now being made to close that gap.”
“I truly think as long as this is seen as criminal it will be very difficult for us to get out of this crisis. People are ashamed, they are hiding and still being arrested with their drugs being seized by police. Even if they have a supply that they deem safe, police will still seize it and destroy it. This forces people to find more drugs and commit more crimes – this really is a failure of decades-long drug policy,” said Lapointe.
“People who used substances and became dependant were punished. We’ve invested billions of dollars over the decades into enforcing the laws, the courts, the jails, and very little meaningful investment into publically funded treatment, diagnosis, or responses.”
Since January of 2020, Northern Health has seen 245 illicit drug deaths – that’s an average of 11 per month.
People in the 50-59 age category have the highest drug toxicity death rate in BC at 75.3 per 100,000 people.
This age bracket has also recorded 450 fatalities so far in 2021, a slight increase from all of last year where the final tally was 405.
So far this year, 113 people in our health authority passed away due to illicit drugs with 41 of those in Prince George.
The Coroners Service noted Northern Health has the third-highest drug toxicity rate among all five health authorities in BC at 44.8 per 100,000.
Only Vancouver Coastal (47.6) and Interior Health (45.0) ranked higher.
In terms of Health Service Delivery Area, the Northern Interior, which includes Prince George-Quesnel-Burns Lake and the Robson Valley has the sixth-highest drug toxicity death rate of 43.9.
Vancouver is the leader in that category with a rate of 69.6 – a difference of nearly 26 points.